The numbers don’t lie: we live in a world where crises are increasing.

OCHA’s World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2015 shows a record involvement of the humanitarian community in relief activities, mainly in contexts of protracted conflict, health-driven emergencies and recurrent natural disasters. From the Ebola crisis in West Africa to the high-intensity conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa to Nepal’s earthquake: the world has woken up to a pattern of persistent and dramatic crises that are continuously affecting the livelihoods, resilience and safety of its people.

In the past couple of years, in particular, the refugee emergency and its prolonged and widely disastrous impacts on people and infrastructure, has emphasized the need to substantially increase the critical mass of monetary, physical and human resources put in place for effectively and humanely addressing such a deep humanitarian challenge.

In this context, businesses have shown that they play a central role in this drama. As voluntary contributors or following their obligations, corporations have found themselves willingly or unwillingly entering a new market: the market of humanitarian assistance. This is a non-traditional market for the corporate world and while many businesses have succeeded in finding a space to occupy in this context (including the likes of Coca-Cola, Deutsche Post and Microsoft), others are still struggling to define their philanthropic identity –reflecting a fairly typical problem of new philanthropists, many of whom do not know the best ways to give effectively.

What are the best practices for efficiently using corporate resources for philanthropic ends in humanitarian assistance? Who are the most respected partners to cooperate with for achieving meaningful impact? What can be done beyond donating money?

Perhaps without realizing it, in the past decades businesses have been supporting national and international relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters. Although corporations only represent a minor share of overall disaster giving, corporate engagement in natural disaster response has risen substantially in both diversity and scale of contributions in the past 10 years, thanks also to an expanded global citizenship agenda. In the US alone, corporate foundations have contributed about $30m, or nearly 26% of all US foundation grants, with most of this funding flowing into natural disaster recovery activities (2013).

Image: Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy 2015: Data to Drive Decisions

There are some interesting lessons that can be learned from corporate philanthropic engagement in natural disasters. Here are four tips to would-be corporate philanthropists as they enter the humanitarian space.

- Evaluate the operational environment and define your core competences. Take the time for some proper environmental scanning to identify the core competences your organisation can contribute in a specific emergency – from volunteering to donating funds to applying key expertise, like specific knowledge, networks or material resources. While the best examples of corporate engagement in disaster relief go beyond the check, it is unquestionably fine to start with cash donations while preparing the grounds for leveraging more unique assets.

- Engage your stakeholders. Define a solid stakeholder engagement strategy that generously targets employees, authorities, unions, communities and any other internal or external stakeholder that could join and complement your relief efforts. Don’t forget about consumers: evidence shows that nearly nine out of 10 global consumers believe companies must play a role in natural disaster response, emphasizing the importance for companies to regularly communicate their efforts externally for the sake of transparency and customer engagement.

- Manage change. While envisioning and planning are key factors for effective humanitarian assistance, rigid multi-year strategies are not ideal in the volatile context of disaster management. Embrace a culture of adaptive philanthropy, get more comfortable with risks and uncertainties and be ready to manage strategic turnarounds.

- Acquire new skills in the form of external help and partnerships. If you realise you need special expertise for your corporate relief work, ask the experts (such as international organisations and NGOs) or partner with other funders or peer companies who are also involved in similar relief efforts. Complementarity is recognized as a key principle for effective humanitarian action.

Taking a business-like approach to philanthropic work is an overarching recommendation to aspiring philanthropists. Indicators and metrics can help support companies and their philanthropic foundations as they put in place and monitor their strategic approaches to humanitarian situations. These are not the same type of performance measures corporations are used to. One thing is certain, though: return on investment and return on assets aside, the return on saving lives can only yield sustainable and inclusive benefits.

This is part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, including: